Do Rotator Cuff Tears Heal on Their Own?

August 30, 2019 0 Comments



Rotator cuff tears do not always require surgery. While the pain is immense and surgery seems like the right solution – it is not always needed. Oftentimes, less invasive treatment options are available, including home remedies and physical therapy. However, in the event of a completely torn rotator cuff, surgery may be the only option.


It is important to seek medical attention right away. The longer you let a torn rotator cuff sit without proper treatment, the harder it becomes to repair.


What is a Rotator Cuff Tear?


Rotator cuff tears occur most often in people ages 55 and older. However, younger people experience them too. They occur often in sudden accidents as well as from overuse. Tendon degeneration may occur as a side effect of aging, but regular use of the joint can make the problem worse.


Your rotator cuff is a combination of muscles and tendons that protect the shoulder joint. The muscles and tendons are attached to the upper part of the shoulder. They provide the protection the shoulder joint needs. When you tear your rotator cuff, you tear one of the muscles or tendons away from the shoulder bone. You can experience a partial or complete tear.


In a partial tear, the tendon remains attached to the bone, but some of the tendon tore away from it. A complete tear means the entire tendon tore away from the shoulder joint. Complete tears often require surgery and cause the most pain.


What are the Symptoms of a Torn Rotator Cuff?


Like most injuries, everyone experiences different symptoms with a torn rotator cuff. There are some common symptoms patients experience, though.


In acute injuries, patients often feel a sharp pain at the front of the shoulder. The pain may travel down the arm or remain in one place. The discomfort can be constant or come and go. You may be able to pinpoint the exact moment the tear occurred or you may notice pain shortly after the accident itself. If it is a complete tear, you will have very limited use of your arm, if any.


Patients with a torn rotator cuff due to overuse or aging may feel pain in the shoulder when reaching or lifting. They may even hear a popping noise in the shoulder from time to time. Most patients have the most pain while trying to sleep on the affected side. The pain may make it impossible to sleep. Other common issues include arm weakness or less mobility in the arm.


Torn rotator cuffs due to overuse or aging happen over time. You probably will not be able to pinpoint when the injury occurred. You may not even realize the depth of the pain until the tear is severe enough to cause issues. Unless you catch a tear right away, it continually gets bigger until you cannot ignore the pain any longer.


Paying attention to your body and what it is trying to tell you is crucial to proper healing. Many people ignore the initial signs of pain or weakness, assuming it will just get better on its own. Any signs of limited mobility or chronic pain should be addressed as soon as possible, though. This can help the shoulder heal faster and reduce the amount of necessary treatment, including avoiding surgery.


Seeking Medical Attention for Rotator Cuff Tears


Seeking medical attention immediately after a sudden injury is crucial to keeping rotator cuff tears to a minimum. An orthopedic surgeon can evaluate the condition of your arm and choose the next necessary steps.


Typically, medical professionals use the following to determine the extent of the damage:


  • Physical exam – Doctors will physically examine the shoulder. They check for a range of motion and look at the blood flow in your arm. They also use various physical tests to determine which muscle/tendon is affected.


  • X-rays – Sometimes x-rays are necessary to rule out other issues, such as bone spurs, arthritis, or a broken bone.


  • MRI – An MRI can identify any degeneration issues in the shoulder. They can also see the tendons themselves to identify the severity of the tear.


  • Ultrasound – Ultrasounds help pinpoint the exact area of concern. You can move your shoulder throughout the exam to focus on the area with the most pain. Ultrasounds cannot see bones, though.


  • Common Remedies for a Torn Rotator Cuff


  • If it is not a complete tear, your doctor may recommend some of the common remedies such as:


  • Rest – Avoiding excessive use of the shoulder can help it start the repair process on its own. Sometimes a sling is necessary or avoidance of repetitive, lifting, or reaching activities can do the trick.


  • Ice or heat – Alternating heat and ice after the injury can help minimize the swelling and promote healing.


  • Anti-inflammatory medications – Reducing the swelling helps reduce pain and helps your tendons take to any other remedies easier.


  • Steroid injection – Steroids help reduce inflammation when anti-inflammatory medications don’t work. Steroids also aid in the arm’s mobility.


  • Physical therapy – Proper exercises can help strengthen the shoulder and the surrounding muscles, allowing the tendons to heal


Listening to your doctor’s recommendations is vital to proper healing. If you overuse the shoulder and the tear remains in place for too long, the shoulder could become arthritic. At this point, your options may be limited. Surgery would not repair the issue and physical therapy will only give you some range of motion back.


The Benefits of Early Diagnosis of Rotator Cuff Tears



Seeking medical attention right away helps minimize the long-term damage to the shoulder. With early diagnosis, you can limit the amount of lost strength or lost motion you experience in your shoulder. A doctor can determine the appropriate treatment options to help you gain your strength back.


The faster you seek medical attention, the faster the treatment can start to work. While the thought of restricting the use of your arm or going through physical therapy may not seem ideal, it helps prevent long-term damage to your shoulder.


The Risks of Ignoring a Rotator Cuff Tear


A rotator cuff tear, when not properly treated, can get worse. If you continually use your arm without restriction, the tear could worsen. This occurs with repetitive use of the arm with a tear. Using your pain as a guide can help you decide if the movement is a good choice. An extended tear could result in the need for surgery.


The Importance of Rehabilitation


Rehabilitation plays an important role in the healing of your shoulder. Even if you do not require surgery, rehab helps strengthen the muscles around the rotator cuff, including the muscles in your arms. You will need to learn how to regain strength in your arm and shoulder to ensure a full range of motion.


Whether you choose surgery or not, the healing focus on the torn tendon itself. It does not focus on the surrounding muscles that support the tendon. Proper rehabilitation will rebuild the area, which in turn, helps your tendon heal faster.


Your initial rehab sessions may last for a month or two. During this time, the physical therapist will move your shoulder – you do not move it on your own. The passive motion of using your shoulder helps foster the tendon’s healing. If you jump back into action too quickly, you can impede the healing.


Physical rehab for your rotator cuff tear offers the following benefits:


  • Improve the range of motion in your shoulder


  • Strengthen the muscles in the arm and shoulder


  • Learn how to use your shoulder when lifting or reaching to avoid further damage


How Long Does it Take for a Rotator Cuff Tear to Heal on its Own?


Even with an immediate diagnosis of the rotator cuff tear, it can take up to six months for it to completely heal. You can speed the process along by following your doctor’s orders. Rushing back into activity, especially heavy lifting, reaching, or repetitive movement can impede any healing and cause the tendon to tear further.


Should You Let Rotator Cuff Tears Heal on Their Own?


You do not have to have surgery because you tore your rotator cuff. What you do need, however, is medical attention. Your doctor can tell you the degree of the tear and what steps will minimize further damage. Ignoring the tear may only lead to further problems down the road including a complete tear or arthritis in the shoulder.


If you feel like you have the symptoms rotator cuff tears present, address them right away. Knowing how to handle the situation now can prevent more detrimental issues down the road. Ice, heat, anti-inflammatory medication, and physical therapy may be all you need to heal your shoulder. If the damage is severe enough, though, you should know so that you can avoid the risk of arthritis and permanent damage to your shoulder. With the right steps,  you can help your rotator cuff tear heal on its own without the help of surgery.

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